On Saturday, I’ll deliver my first actual sermon at an Apologetics conference in Chicago. I submit it here now for your consideration. Frankly, if I keep staring at it, I’m going to make changes again, so I’m getting it in the wild now. It’s written to be spoken, which I have not done in a long time.
This is actually one of the most difficult things I have done. I speak for two to three hours a day unscripted on radio. But there are no souls involved. James 3:1 became very real for me. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Here there are souls involved. My respect for preachers has gone up even more.
As Prepared For Delivery
Chicago, May 16, 2015
The Believer In the Public Square
I have so much that I could say here, that I want to say, but though I do two to three hours of radio a day mouthing off, I will try to be more precise here. My intention is to spend time in Acts, but I need to start with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, verses 16 to 20.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Notice the words of Christ. Because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to” him, “go.” Mark 15:16 phrases it this way, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
Christianity is not the religion of high walls. It is not to be insular. It is not to be withdrawn and we are not to withdraw from society. We are to go. We are to go and do what? We are to go “and make disciples of all nations.” Islam remains rooted in Saudi Arabia. Judaism remains rooted in Israel. Hinduism remains rooted in India. Buddhism lies there too. Christianity is a mobile, moving, flowing religion. It’s as if it is guided by a Holy Spirt. Even now it is raising its anchor in the West and moving to Africa, South America, and Asia. Christ said go. We are to preach, we are to teach, and we are to baptize.
Go means go into the town square as well. Share the good news. But look also at verse 17. They all, all of them, they worshiped. But some doubted. Turn now with me to Acts 6 and verse 8.
I will read verses 8 until the end, then the first verse of Chapter 7.
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
Stephen is the first martyr of the church. We know how this story ends. He is stoned to death. That television show, AD, had this on the other night. I have an aversion to it and follow a twitter account called Calvinist Batman. He watched so I did not have to and live-tweeted the show. Stephen’s face apparently was not angelic and, to sensationalize it for TV plot development, Saul casts the fatal blow to kill Stephen. The Bible is actually clear that Paul was just a spectator.
Nonetheless, there is a richness here and I will not be able to get to it all, but have some points that must be made.
First, we need to step back. This is the third major excursion of the church into the town square and the first by someone other than an apostle. In Acts 4, Peter and John go into the town square of Jerusalem and are arrested for preaching the gospel. They are questioned by the high priest then let go.
After they are released, the first church prayed praying, in part,
Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
In Acts 5, the persecution escalates because the Christians will not give up. Again the Apostles are arrested. This time they are beaten and told to stop speaking of Jesus and the Gospel. But they persist.
Into this environment, with escalating persecution, Stephen enters. He is not an Apostle. But the Apostles have gone and made disciples, of which Stephen is one.
Back in verse five we are told that Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” What Luke means here was that Stephen was “filled up.” Stephen was filled up with faith and of the Holy Spirit. We get to verse 8 and the same is used. Stephen was filled up with grace and power.
Of course he was. If one is filled up with faith and the Holy Spirit, one will most likely be filled with grace and power. The latter flow from the former. Note too that Stephen was one of seven chosen to serve as deacons. They were to help the Apostles. Their role was to help with the widows and daily distribution. But Stephen did more.
“Full of grace and power” Stephen “was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” Outside of the Apostles, only Stephen, Philip, and Barnabas performed miracles and the language used was that Stephen was continually doing them. Barnabas too, scripture tells us, was filled up with faith and the Holy Spirit.
Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was also full of grace and power doing miraculous signs before the people. Yet Stephen did not think it below his duty to distribute the alms and tend to widows. This guy, who was performing signs and wonders was still humbly doing his work in and for the church. He did not think it beneath him. He didn’t go out and say “Hey y’all watch this,” and conjure up something to do it for him. He wasn’t Mickey Mouse trying to be the Wizard. He knew his role and submitted to it with a glad heart.
But Stephen was also in the town square debating with others. Scripture tells us those he debated “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Note carefully here that with Stephen, like with us, we are vessels through which the Spirit might do its work. Stephen, full of faith and the Spirit, knew this. It was by the Spirit that none could withstand what he was saying. And so, like with Christ, those he debated turned to deceit.
Matthew Henry noted “As it was with the confessors and martyrs of the Old Testament, so it was with those of the New—their brethren that hated them, and cast them out, said, Let the Lord be glorified; and pretended they did him service in it.” I might add we see this today.
There are those who claim the banner of our faith and tell us Christ will accept sinners and their sin. They serve up a Christ of their own creation and when the standards of our faith through Holy Scripture are presented, they call it judging. While pretending to service the Lord, they ignore that he said, “Go and sin no more.” A gospel without repentance is not gospel at all. It’s worldly fluff that gets you an earthly hell with soft bedding.
The world, like Stephen’s critics, thinks the world has the answer. The world posits what Jesus would do in certain situations and judges the church by a Jesus they have created. But what would Jesus do? Our whole faith, like Stephen’s, rests in that answer. When the world asks what Jesus would do, Christians should have only one response — Jesus Christ would submit himself to torture, crucifixion, and death, then conquer death that whosoever believeth in him shall have eternal life.
People were stirred up against Stephen. They accused him of blasphemy. They distorted his words. They placed a false witness against him. The first martyr of the Christian faith was dragged from the town square before the rulers, lied about, and executed. The first martyr’s fate mirrors the fate of the Risen Lord. And through it all “his face was like the face of an angel. “
John Calvin tells us
Men do commonly in places of judgment turn their eyes toward the party arraigned, when as they look for his defence. He said that Stephen appeared like an angel; this is not spoken of his natural face, but rather of his present countenance. For whereas the countenance of those which are arraigned usually are pale and stammer in their speech and show other signs of fear, Luke teaches that there was no such thing in Stephen, but that there appeared rather in him a certain majesty.
Others suggest this was more than mere peace and grace, but rather like Moses’s face glowing from the reflected glory of God. The spectators intending to glare at Stephen with daggers from their eyes to intimidate him, instead saw the radiance of the divine and the peace that transcends all understanding.
Let’s pause here and reflect because what happened to Stephen is happening now to believers.
First, he reflected God in his life. He was a real believer. He served the poor. He tended to the widows. He drew others to Christ through his tender actions and personal grace. He served others. Christ said, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Stephen took that to heart.
Second, Stephen was unwilling to nuance for the sake of politeness. He was not going to neuter scripture to win friends, because he was there to win souls. He was not mean spirited, but he did not cede ground.
Third, he did go as Christ commanded. He went into the town square and he reflected God in his actions and grace and humility. He debated and engaged with the world, which was not able to overcome him, defeat him, or win an argument. So they twisted his words with a kernel of truth. Christ had, in fact, talked about the destruction of the temple.
John 2:18, 19:
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
This returns in Mark 14:
56 For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ”
And now the same happens to Stephen. The same lie used against our Lord Jesus is used against Stephen.
Fourth, and this is of paramount importance, Stephen was not trusting in himself. He was trusting the Lord. But it wasn’t just an abstract trust. He placed himself at the mercy of the Lord, letting Christ take over. He, like what we must do now, derived his conviction and ability through his knowledge of the certainty of Christ’s victory. Stephen was full of faith because he had no doubt that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
The same world that distorted Christ’s words and Stephen’s, does so now with our scripture. The world has substituted Christ’s sacrificial love with a passionate love. The virtuous love of the one who would lay down his life for others has been replaced with the passionate love that would only lay down in a bed. The love of Christ involves the passion of two souls joined together in matrimony as one completed human, but it also involves the virtue of the wife holding the hand of her husband who no longer knows her as he slips off into eternity.
It is not that the world has forgotten these things. It never knew them. The playbook of the world has not changed, but hostility and the ignorance and aggressiveness of new atheists who twist and deny and worship emotion while calling it science has grown. They now pressure Christians to sit down and shut up.
In fact, the response of some Christians in the face of this is to sit on the sidelines. Some try to accommodate the world. Some Christians begin to nuance their way into hell thinking themselves set apart. They do not humble themselves to scripture, but rewrite it to suit their modern tastes.
Jude told us
17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
I submit that we do not want ourselves to go to hell, so we must love in a way that reflects we do not want others to go to hell. To the world that may be judgmental and wrong and moralizing. But it is God’s love. We must live it both in the town square and we must absolutely live it by example, as Stephen did.
We are supposed to change for God. He is not supposed to change for us. The Christ who said to love is the Christ who spent more time talking about hell than anyone else in the Bible. The Christ who said to care for the poor and children is the Christ who could turn to righteous anger in the temple.
Christ told us to go and make disciples. That means we cannot withdraw from the town square or our community. It means we cannot pull up anchor and sail away.
“And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” in Acts 7:1. Stephen did not deny, he did not cave, and he did not nuance. He spoke the truth boldly. He told the high priest and witnesses their history and the truth. He was killed for it as Christ had been killed.
There is a fundamental difference though and I implore you to put it in your heart. Christ, on the cross, cried out to his Father, “why have you forsaken me?” Stephen knew with the same conviction he knew that the sun would come up in the East that Christ had not and would not forsake him.
Stephen was full of faith. He did not doubt, as some had when Christ gave the Great Commission. He was convicted and full of faith and spirit and grace and power.
Stephen knew what could be coming. The Apostles had twice been arrested and once beaten. Scripture tells us that the council was “enraged and wanted to kill them.” But scripture also tells us in Acts 5 that though people were too scared to be publicly seen with the Apostles “the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord.” Throughout it all we find that the first church was joyful, cheerful, prayerful, and bold. Stephen’s face was not just like that of an angel, he had good countenance.
People are not going to approach scowls and find them accessible.
Therein lies a lesson for all of us. Many against the church are loud and angry. That is in part because they lack the peace of our Lord, but it is also because they want to scare and intimidate others. They want people to not think it safe to be with us. To be sure, Christianity is not a safe religion. It is a religion that says we must surrender all to Jesus. Surrendering ourselves to someone else is a risky proposition in our culture.
They also want it to be uncool. They intimidate, belittle, bully, and harass as a way to hamper saving souls. But though they can see us, they cannot see the Holy Spirit working in and through us and in others drawing them to Christ. The days are coming when some here will feel uncomfortable being open as a Christian, but those of us who are able, must. Christ said to “go.” We will find our task made easier with a prayerful heart and a smiling face.
We do not need to yell for Jesus, but serve others for Jesus. We share the gospel by building relationships with others and making Jesus approachable. Like with Stephen, there are some who will distort our message. They will mischaracterize God. They will call us bigots. They will challenge the exclusivity of Christ and his claim that only through him can someone find everlasting life.
The high priests of our secular world are going to ask you too, “Is this so?”We know what Stephen said. We know his defense of the faith. The word “Jesus” never actually appeared in Stephen’s speech. He led the Jews through their faith and religion showing them the way to Jesus without using his name. We will be asked by this world, “Is this so?” I would submit that we must have an answer and the answer is Jesus, a real and present Jesus, not a dead past-tense Jesus.
If you read Stephen’s response to the High Priest when asked “is this so,” Stephen does not respond to “are you guilty,” but rather recounts the entire narrative of their shared faith. More specifically, he answers by recounting what God had done because Stephen is in trouble not for what he had done really, but for what God had done. Stephen, without hesitation or stammer, recounted what God had done.
Understanding this is the key to our going into the world. From Acts 4:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
Back in the sixties and seventies, American churches looked on with horror as the sexual revolution broke out. The communes started and hippies descended into free love. The overreaction by the church was to start talking about our individual walks with God. The sermons of the churches that did not drift into accord with the world began focusing on the individual acts of salvation.
In doing so, they over time downplayed the actual communal, corporate acts of worship. We are relational beings. God created Eve because man should not be alone. In the 21st century we have sacrificed community for individuality. In my own family, we are so focused on little league and after school and weekends with family we neglect our church family. We fail to break bread with our friends who encourage us.
At the beginning of Acts and throughout the Book, we find the early Christians in communion with each other. They pray together. They break bread together. They share their testimonies. It serves as an encouragement. It serves as a reinforcement. It serves to make them bold. They derived strength even from their corporate prayers for boldness. How often do we pray for boldness in our faith?
Think about that for just a second. Acts tells us that the Apostles shared their testimony of Jesus’s resurrection. The eyewitnesses shared what they had seen. And still they prayed for boldness.
Stephen had come from that. He left his church community, encouraged and emboldened and re-energized to share the Gospel. When Stephen answered the High Priest’s “is this so” by recounting the narrative of history and God’s impact, he did it reassured in Christ and knowing he had a community of believers behind him.
The movie “The Village” is one of those post “Sixth Sense” M Night Shyamalan movies where he tries in vain and fails to capture the originality of the “Sixth Sense.” In it, a village in the woods in the 19th century is surrounded by a forest with terrible creatures that require that no one ever leave the village.
The plot twist, and considering the movie was released in 2004 I don’t feel bad about spoiling it for you, is that there are no creatures and it is not the 19th century. A group of people move themselves into a village in the middle of a forest preserve then convince their children that they are all that exists. No one is allowed to discover the outside world. When anyone works up the courage to enter the woods, the adults dress up as monsters and scare the kids back to the village.
I’ve got a 9 year old daughter and a 6 year old son. I am really, really tempted by that concept. But that is not Christianity. We can retreat temporarily to the safe haven of our church community. We can and should hear the stories of the martyrs and the stories of our friends and their struggles with faith, their testimony, and their walk with the Lord. They should embolden us and encourage us in our faith. We have a corporate responsibility to worship together, pray together, then go. Your walk in the woods alone may be great for you mentally, but that is not church. It is not community.
Stephen went to his death having come from the town square and went to the town square from his community of fellow believers. We need that! We need that personal, communal Christian relationship. The resurrection will not be explained by science but believed by faith. That faith comes from our shared testimonies of Jesus in our lives. That faith comes from our personal relationship with Jesus we develop individually, but also in community.
Jesus has had a personal impact in my life. I remember the day my wife was given six months to live. I remember holding my child in the mud and the rain as I cried with no energy left to carry her inside. She patted me on my face to tell me it would all be okay, but my wife was dying. And I remember the calm and peace that washed over me. I remember too the joy when we found out it was a misdiagnosis.
I remember struggling to make ends meet and getting a random call from a lady at CNN offering me a job. I remember falling into a radio career solely because the local morning talk host got arrested in a crack house and the station needed someone to fill in. I had been on just a few times to talk politics and they remembered me.
I have seen the Lord walk beside me through the valley of the shadow of death and I have seen him prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. And I know it was him and not me because I know me and I know I could not have done these things. I know Jesus in my own life. I know he is real and there because I know him personally and I know I too am obliged to go.
I also know an army of Christian believers pray for me and my family. When I could not pray, they were praying. When I was too tired to walk, they carried me. When I could not speak, they spoke for me — the body of Christ made real through the church.
Martin Luther King said, “if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”
That is what Stephen had. He knew Jesus was alive. He heard how Jesus had personally impacted others in his community. He had been impacted by Jesus. He had been ministered to and ministered others within his church. And he wanted others outside his church to know that love.
You are here as a Christian. You believe in Christ. Be filled up with faith and spirit. Show grace. But know it is not you. It is the Spirit working through you who will lead others to Christ. You must, like Stephen, go forth but not cede ground. You must not be afraid to be in the town square. Reflect God’s countenance on your face. Reflect the joy of the Heavens. And share the good news of Jesus.
Your face will not radiate like Stephen’s face. But in the present age, a smile radiates. You will not perform signs and wonders like Stephen performed. But making sure your neighbor is okay when the power goes out or stopping to help the stranded motorist on the side of the road is, in this age, a pretty powerful wonder. The world will know us by our love, and our love is different from the world’s love.
When the high priest asked Stephen “is this so,” Stephen provided an answer. Even before that answer, Stephen’s actions spoke the loudest. Stephen stood in the town square debating, but he also got his hands dirty helping others. We need our church community for our soul nourishment and rest. But we as Christians need to also be involved in our community as Stephen was.
Christians must not be afraid to get their hands dirty in culture or in politics. We are compelled by God Almighty, the maker of all the heavens and the earth who raised us up from the dust of the earth and stitched us together in our mothers’ wombs, to go. Go! The imperative follows the declarative that all power on heaven and earth is in Christ. So go!
Find comfort in your church community. Before you go, if you do not have a church community, find one or build one. You need that strength and energy and relationship. We cannot stay behind the high walls, but we can go inside for rest. Then we must go and make disciples. We must serve humbly. Friends, after Stephen’s death, the church spread out across the world. Even now we often send our kids on beach trips around the world to hammer nails and work on tans, but there is still a mission field in our own backyard.
There’s the overwhelmed mother in our church who needs someone to help with laundry. There’s the kid down the street who needs someone to cheer for him at baseball because his parents don’t show up. There is the man in the hospital who just wants someone to talk to.There is the inner-city single mom trying to help her child get a good education. There is the family that just needs a home cooked meal. Stephen had to defend his faith to the high priest. But before he got there, he lived his faith in his church community and in his city.
One day God will demand an accounting. So we find ourselves where Stephen found himself. Our God commands that we go preach and teach and baptize, but we are going at a time of increasing persecution. We are not, thank God, at a point in Christendom in the West where so many of our brothers and sisters are in other countries. We may be harassed and bullied and shouted down, but we are not at the point of death.
So go. Go carry light into the darkness and go knowing with the certainty that Stephen knew it
“that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When the high priests of this world demand “is this so,” make your yes a yes and your no a no and tell them about Jesus. Do not be “ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When the world demands you be silent or nuance your faith to please the world, remember the words of Isaiah
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!
You will not share the real Jesus if you do not know the real Jesus. And you will not make disciples of the real Jesus if you are ashamed of him or scared the world will not like him. The world won’t! But those “called according to His purposes” will come. The burden for saving souls rests with the Holy Spirit and you are the vessel through which God works his will. Do not seek accommodation with this world. Seek the next world.
“On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel … [t]he sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” And Joshua said the Israelites, having captures the kings who were the enemies of God and preparing to put them to death, told the Israelites what you must put in your heart — words Stephen surely knew even unto his death. “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.”
So fear the Lord, not the world. Be strong and courageous even to your last day. God’s got you covered. He’ll deal with the enemies.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that [he has] commanded you. And behold, [Jesus is] with you always, to the end of the age.
It is your duty to be a visible church in a town square serving others and calling others to believe, to have faith, and to repent. We cannot retreat. We cannot turn inward or withdraw. But we can stand on a hill, in the town square, in our jobs, in our communities, or just in the life of our family in the world. We can be a curious light drawing inquisitive people close to see the flame that is the spirit in our lives — that spirit of truth that provides the only real answers to the questions so many have: “Why are we here? Is this all there is?”
We find joy when others cry. We smile when the world around us scowls. We go where the world will not go. We are not the light, but we can reflect it even as the darkness closes in. We are followers of the only Lord, who is our Savior Jesus Christ.